The angry ‘ladla’

Former prime minister Imran Khan has triggered a controversy over the appointment of a new army chief

Mazhar Abbas
Former prime minister Imran Khan delivers a speech in a rally in Multan on September 8, 2022. — AFP
Former prime minister Imran Khan delivers a speech in a rally in Multan on September 8, 2022. — AFP

Former prime minister Imran Khan has triggered a controversy over the appointment of a new army chief, about a month before Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has to take the decision.

Khan’s remarks during a public meeting in Faisalabad did not go down well with the ranks and file of the military, as was evident from the reaction of the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations a day later.

Khan tried to clarify his remarks in another public rally, but the damage seems to have been already done.

According to a member of the PTI, who asked not to be named, the former prime minister fell for the bad advice given to him by some within the party, and Khan’s remarks were in response to rumours of another extension.

After a strong reaction from political and military circles, as well as from his own allies, Khan decided to subdue his criticism by claiming that what he offered was “constructive criticism”.

“The army is mine, the country is mine. Strong institutions are a guarantee for the stability of the country,” he said from the stage at a political gathering. He further added that he did not want Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari to select the new army chief and asked what was wrong in saying that?

Under the constitution, it is the prime minister who has the prerogative to appoint a new army chief, out of names which the army sends to him or her.

The prime minister can also extend the term of the serving military head, as has happened in the past and more recently in the case of General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

But Khan’s comments cannot be taken in isolation. They must be seen in the context of the continued campaign against the establishment in the social media and his veiled criticism of the military in other occasions.

The former prime minister’s statement also comes at a time when his own chief of staff, Shahbaz Gill, is facing sedition charges over derogatory remarks during a highly controversial interview on a private television channel.

It now appears that Khan is fully convinced that he was ousted from power by the establishment and the then opposition parties were just a tool. He also believes that the United States played a part in it. It must be again stated that Khan has provided no proof of these charges as yet.

Thus, when he was removed from power, through a vote of no confidence, his anger primarily was directed at the US and the establishment.

Khan then came up with a new term for the establishment: “neutrals”.

His first derogatory remark targeting the military was when he said at a rally that only animals can be neutral. Some of the retired army officers, who otherwise support Imran Khan, also criticized him for his statement. After his Faisalabad speech, many ex-servicemen say he has crossed the red line.

Not only is their outrage amongst ex-military officials but Khan’s remarks are also causing unease within his own party and his allies like Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, who are also distancing themselves from his comments.

Imran Khan did not need to go this far. He was already on a winning streak in the by-elections being held.

It is unclear why he is in a hurry to hold polls, and why can he not wait till next year? It is unlikely that his popularity will dip in a few months.

One reason for this could be that Khan fears, and he has often voiced this fear, of being disqualified before the next general election. At the moment, Khan is facing multiple cases, including that of terrorism, contempt, foreign funding and Toshakhana.

The man who was once considered as ‘ladla’ of the establishment is now directing his ire at them.

“If the Sharifs were ladlas in the past, Imran is perhaps still the ladla, who now seems to be angry and has taken a hard line,” said a leader from the Pakistan Muslim League-N, on the condition of anonymity.

But sometimes anger can cloud your judgement. What will Khan do next? Does he even have a plan?

We will have to wait and see.